Cal women’s basketball eyes strong finish to productive offseason

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After another season with more than 20 wins to its name, the Cal women’s basketball team is entering the new school year with confidence, eyeing a third straight NCAA tournament appearance come next spring.

“We have a chance to be really special,” said head coach Lindsay Gottlieb.

Last season, the Bears suffered an early exit during the first round of the tournament in a game against Virginia when star forward Kristine Anigwe was sidelined unexpectedly. In her senior year, Anigwe is hopeful to avenge her abrupt ending to last season by adding to her long list of achievements.

After graduation, Cal’s other starting big, Penina Davidson, flew to New Zealand for professional play, leaving Cal’s roster a little thin on the frontcourt. Gottlieb has since been working to figure out her rotation for the season.

Junior C.J. West, who started for Anigwe against Virginia, looks to be the frontrunner for a starting position, though sophomore Alaysia Styles will also try to make her case in the ensuing months.

Another Golden Bear that left the team this offseason was forward Mikayla Cowling, who was drafted 33rd overall by the Connecticut Sun. Though this is a big loss for the Bears, freshman McKenzie Forbes — a five-star recruit — should help make the transition as seamless as possible.

“I’m just super excited to get into Pac-12 play. I’ve been watching it for a few years now,” Forbes said. “I’m just excited to be in Haas and feel the energy.”

Forbes, the 2018 McDonald’s All-American 3-point contest winner, will form a deathly duo from beyond the arc with sophomore Jaelyn Brown, who shot a solid .379 from the three last season. Strong shooting from the outside will help Anigwe find space down low, while also allowing the guards to drive into the paint.

“On the court, it’s a battle; off the court we are best friends,” Brown said of her teammates.

Speaking of guards, Gottlieb will surely have a headache deciding who to play in the backcourt, as the guard rotation for Cal is as deep as it gets.

Senior Asha Thomas, who has started in every game during her career as a Bear, will have her fair share of competition to keep this spot. Sophomore Kianna Smith is coming off a great freshman campaign in which she was crowned with Pac-12 All-Freshman honors.

Newcomer Receé Caldwell, who is the first graduate transfer to ever play for the program, and redshirt sophomore Mi’Cole Cayton, who will return from an ACL injury that ended her last season in the opener against St. Mary’s, are just a few weapons in Gottlieb’s arsenal this season.

With a plethora of players who excel in multiple positions and collaborate well on the court, it will be easy for Gottlieb to experiment with the roster a bit depending on the opposing matchups.

The depth, of course, is a good thing to ensure foul problems and fatigue are not a huge problem in late-game situations.

Last season, one problem that haunted the Bears was defeating ranked teams. This season, Cal will definitely look forward to undertaking that challenge and coming out strong to prove itself as one of the elite programs in the nation.

Even though conference schedule will be of huge importance, the Bears will have the chance to test themselves against high-caliber competition in nonconference matchups, especially when they host the mighty UConn on Dec. 22.

There is a long way until the start of the season, but one thing that is already apparent is that the team has plenty of motivation and confidence to take its place on top.

“We are just going to go out and play Cal basketball, you know, that’s what we know how to do,” Cayton said. “We are Cal and every team is scared to play us.”

Can Sariöz covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @can_sarioz.